The air crash that killed entrepreneur Steve Fossett, famed for his daredevil aerial feats, was probably caused by downdrafts that exceeded the ability of his small plane to recover before slamming into a California mountainside, federal safety officials said on Thursday.
Fossett, 63, disappeared on Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off alone from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton for what was supposed to have been a short pleasure flight. His Bellanca 8KCAB-180, a single-engine two-seater known as the “Super Decathlon,” which sometimes was used for acrobatic flying, crashed near Mammoth Lakes, California.
An extensive, high-profile search failed to turn up any clues to his fate. A year later, on Oct. 7, 2008, a hiker found some of Fossett’s belongings, including a pilot certificate and an identification card. An aerial search located the wreckage about a 800m away at an elevation of about 3,048m.
At breakfast on the day of the accident, Fossett told the ranch’s chief pilot that he intended to fly along Highway 395, and he did not plan to wear a parachute, which would have been required for acrobatics, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report.
No emergency radio transmissions were received from Fossett, nor were any emergency locator transmitter signals received.
After the wreckage was discovered, a review of radar data from September 2007 revealed a “track” that ended 1.6km northwest of the accident site, the report said.
The radar track initially was dismissed in the search for Fossett because an employee at Hilton’s ranch had reported seeing the Bellanca in a different location at about the time of the radar track, the report said. It was later determined that the employee’s time estimate of the sighting was off by about an hour, the report said.
The radar track shows what is now believed to have been Fossett’s plane flying south the along a crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The track started about 56km south-southwest from where he had taken off that morning and continued roughly parallel to Highway 395 about 16km to the west of the road. The first few minutes of the track indicated an altitude of about 4,419m to 4,541m, the report said.
“The remainder of the track consisted of primary returns with no altitude information,” the report said.
Based on its investigation — including weather reports, interviews with other pilots who flew in area that day and an examination of the wreckage — the board concluded the Bellanca probably was unable even at full power to climb out of what likely were powerful downdrafts.
Wind gusts in the area can whip up without warning from any direction, with sudden downdrafts that can drag a plane clear to the ground.